Sometimes I pine for the days when America’s decision making bodies included more engineers. If that is too far a stretch, perhaps we can at least get back to a situation where there are more people in decision making positions who have been exposed to some of the training associated with building and manufacturing high quality products. While not all engineers are licensed professional engineers, most still adhere to the ethical prescriptions that are embodied in the following code of ethics from the NSPE (National Society of Professional Engineers).
Engineering is an important and learned profession. As members of this profession, engineers are expected to exhibit the highest standards of honesty and integrity. Engineering has a direct and vital impact on the quality of life for all people. Accordingly, the services provided by engineers require honesty, impartiality, fairness, and equity, and must be dedicated to the protection of the public health, safety, and welfare. Engineers must perform under a standard of professional behavior that requires adherence to the highest principles of ethical conduct.
I. Fundamental Canons
Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall:
1. Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.
2. Perform services only in areas of their competence.
3. Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.
4. Act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.
5. Avoid deceptive acts.
Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.
I have been thinking about this for several days, ever since I embedded the video of a Stuart Varney interview of Vermont Senate President Peter Shumlin. Varney’s stated goal for the interview was to allow Shumlin a chance to explain his plan to replace the electricity currently supplied by the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.
That is a pretty straightforward question, one that really needs truth in numbers and a firm understanding of the limitations of technology. For most people in America, a partial electricity supply plan is no plan at all. We all assume that all of the electricity that we want to use will be available to us in our homes about 99.9% of the time. We do not expect to have to carefully pick and choose which appliances to operate at any given time – we do not shut off the refrigerator in order to turn on the television set, for example. We do not expect to walk into a room and flip the switch, only to find that the lights do not turn on.
Though many people in America simply cannot be bothered to find out how that magical product gets produced and delivered, we are at least dimly aware of the network of wires that are ubiquitous in most cities and towns and we remember the power plants that we see on a country drive. The conscious recognition of the importance of those industrial production and delivery ingredients comes in spurts – when a storm knocks down power poles or cuts the wires, we either suffer in the dark or pull out the generators. Either way, we learn quickly to appreciate the efforts of those often invisible workers who put the vital production and delivery system back together again.
Varney’s interview with Shumlin exposed the fact that the man who led the effort to make a political decision to attempt to remove permission to continue operating a reliable power plant has no knowledge of how the power system works. Shumlin repeatedly stated that he was modeling his plan on Germany and claimed that Germany, “with less sun days than Vermont”, gets 30% of its electricity from solar. That claim is only off by a factor of 43; if customers were condemned to live in a place with an electrical grid designed by Shumlin, they would be able to turn on the lights only one day out of 43.
I will give Shumlin the benefit of the doubt – reluctantly – and assume that he really does believe that solar can provide as much electricity to Vermont as Vermont Yankee does. However, I really wish that he and all other decision makers would recognize the limits of their training and only “perform services in areas of their competence”. We would all be better off.
Please note – this is not a plea for some kind of elitism. Anyone, no matter what the circumstances of their birth or family heritage, can study and become an engineer specializing in whatever field really interests them. The world really would be a better place if the technical decisions required would be made by those who have taken the time and expended the effort to develop the detailed expertise that has been tested by others who have demonstrated their expertise already.
Sometime when I have more time, I will talk about the electricity system prescriptions that come from economists who have no understanding of the real world either.
PS: For the record – I am not a licensed professional engineer. In fact, I do not hold an engineering degree, though I have served as an operating engineer in the Navy. I admire the ethical code under which reputable engineers operate.